Fish house owner in Catch-22

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Fish house owner in Catch-22
The state wants this structure off Cortez torn down, but a fish house owner is suing to prove property rights.

CORTEZ – As the Florida Legislative session winds down this week, Karen Bell, of A.P. Bell Fish Co., is caught in a “Catch-22” – she says she’s not allowed to talk to her state elected official about resolving an issue in his district because she is a party in litigation on the issue.

Bell said she has tried to set up an appointment with Florida Senate President Bill Galvano (R-Bradenton) to discuss sponsoring legislation to allow Raymond Guthrie Jr.’s stilt structure to remain standing in Sarasota Bay just south of her fish house.

Guthrie built the structure in 2018 on the location of several former Guthrie family net camps, which were used by commercial fishermen to clean, dry and store nets, Bell said.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) says it owns the submerged land under the net camp and has ordered Guthrie to demolish the structure, but Bell says her company owns the submerged land pursuant to the 1921 Butler Act, which awarded submerged lands to upland property owners who made improvements, such as building structures, to the submerged lands.

She is trying to prove ownership in court. But because of her pending suit against the DEP, Bell said she was told by Galvano’s assistant that he can’t speak to her.

“It was suggested by DEP staff who came to Cortez and met with us that we talk with our local delegation about submitting special legislation to allow the camp to remain. They told us that other counties (Pasco, Lee and Charlotte) had done this successfully,” Bell wrote in a February email to Galvano’s legislative assistant, Amanda Romant.

Romant replied by email that “Our office has reached out to the Department of Environmental Protection for information regarding the status of the Guthrie Net Camp case. Based on the details they shared, you are involved in pending litigation in the 12th Judicial Circuit that prevents our office from getting involved. If these legal issues are resolved in the future and you would like to update our office again, please feel free to do so.”

Bell responded to Romant that she had no other choice than to intervene legally to prevent the camp from being destroyed, but that she would be willing to “drop the legal opposition if we can get a bill to protect the camp.”

She also noted that the Manatee County Commission passed a resolution last year in support of allowing the building to remain.

The Sun contacted Galvano’s office for an interview on the issue and was told in an email from assistant Katherine Betta that Galvano would respond. Instead, he asked his staff for an update from DEP, she wrote in a subsequent email. That update consisted of a history of court dates in the case, and advised that the next hearing is on June 4.

The Manatee County Clerk of the Circuit Court’s website lists the next hearing as June 3.

“This is ridiculous,” Bell said. “I don’t understand why a lawsuit should prevent me from talking to my elected representative.”